Is anybody in charge?
The timing of the release of Moshe Dayan's "play dumb" testimony before the Agranat Commission that investigated the intelligence failure behind the 1973 Yom Kippur War ("Me? An army man? I'm just a political animal") could not be more perfect, more relevant, when set against the backdrop of Ehud Barak's demand from Tzipi Livni to serve as semi-prime minister in her new government. Just as 35 years ago, and all throughout the reign of successive Israeli governments, there is no issue more hot-button than the nature of working relations between the prime minister and defense minister. Livni will falter if she makes do with playing defense in the face of Barak's onslaught, for she must establish the reverse scenario: The prime minister must be semi-defense minister. During times of distress, both of them will be in the same boat, with the same problem on their hands.
Dayan tried to deflect responsibility to those both above and beneath him for preparation of the Israel Defense Forces before the Yom Kippur War. Above him was the government, and below him was the General Staff. Not only does his testimony show that he personally did not try to ride two horses simultaneously, it also shows how he had the audacity to lay the guilt on both horses, as if he were some powerless bystander, a eunuch in Queen Golda Meir's court.
"Who is the commander in chief? I'm hard-pressed to say, I think it's the government," Dayan said in his testimony. "Perhaps during a time when the prime minister and defense minister was one person, it was different. Today, each military venture, let us say for this war the crossing of the [Suez] Canal, means a government decision. The religious affairs minister was adamantly opposed to it and he said that our forces would be in danger if we crossed to the other side, and the defense minister's opinion did not carry greater weight than that of the religious affairs minister."
Following the publication of the Agranat Commission report the following April (the final report was released only in January 1975), which resulted in the dismissal of IDF chief of staff David Elazar, but which attempted - though for naught from the public's standpoint - to spare the civilian leadership, the Basic Law on the Military was passed. It officially codified the working relationship between the government, the defense minister and the chief of staff.
Nonetheless, it later became clear once again that the language of the law is not the determining factor in this calculus, but rather the security and political reality. Ariel Sharon was the military jack of all trades in Menachem Begin's government, all the way up until the Lebanese quagmire of 1982. At the height of the campaign, Begin and his ministers stripped Sharon of the authority to order artillery and aerial bombardment of the Beirut area. At the conclusion of the war, sandwiched between the Agranat Commission and the Winograd Committee, arose the Kahan Commission, which scolded Begin, Sharon and chief of staff Rafael Eitan all together.
Dayan was, supposedly, just an officer who liaised between the chief of staff and the government. "Usually, I present the government with proposals that 99 percent of the time are agreed upon by the general staff and myself," he said. "This carries with it great weight." During instances when there was internal disagreement within the IDF, he claimed never to have interceded and that he never opposed his chief of staff. He knew (in 1969) that Maj. Gen. Yisrael Tal had serious reservations over chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev's defensive strategy in the Sinai Peninsula, the same approach that crystallized into what became known as the "Bar-Lev line" that collapsed in 1973. Dayan, though, did not rule as to which of the two approaches was the proper one.
Under these circumstances, Tal refused to accept an appointment as GOC Southern Command, although Sharon, who shared his opinion, deluded himself into thinking he could succeed in creating facts on the ground contrary to the positions staked by Bar-Lev and Elazar. Dayan, who preferred to name Maj. Gen. Yeshayahu Gavish as chief of staff, and who backed off from that intention due to a lack of support from Meir and most of the ministers, did not see the appointment of Elazar as a sufficient rationale to resign. Even when he named Tal to head the operations branch under Elazar, Dayan warned him to remember his place as just "a number 2," and that one should "not speak up and resign over principles and ethics." Dayan sanctified the hierarchy. "When I visited the southern command and met with Sharon, I didn't rule in favor of his views," Dayan testified. "Since Sharon thinks differently, am I going to force his opinion on the chief of staff?"
In Israel, there is no shortage of expert observers who are experienced and available to report for duty. In the last year, for example, in light of the increasing fears of a possible war with Syria, one could have assembled half of an entire general staff from the retired army men who were asked to provide their advice: Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and David Ivry, Uri Saguy and Amos Yaron, Yitzhak Ben Yisrael and Ya'akov Amidror. How wonderful it is to be an observer without having any authority and without bearing any responsibility. One can add to the burden (like David Ben-Gurion, who broke the IDF's then-chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin in 1967), and he can also lighten the load. The final verdict always rests with those who hold the job titles, and they cannot step aside in Dayanesque wavering, even if one cannot resist the temptation to view the Livni-Barak pairing as the latest incarnation of Golda-Dayan.
The largest, continuing security failure of the last decade is the failure to adequately counter high-trajectory weapons. Alongside this deficiency is the failure to find a solution to weapon-smuggling tunnels. Those responsible for both shortcomings are the bureaucrats at the Defense Ministry's research and development branch as well as their superiors, including the chiefs of staff, the defense ministers and the prime ministers, none of whom understood the full significance of the problems and did not give them enough priority. Livni will follow her predecessors down the same fruitless path if she does not cement for herself a decisive position of influence within the defense establishment. The responsibility will be hers to shoulder because the premiership does not end at the spot where the job of the defense minister begins.